The eighteenth century saw a quiet revolution in the structure of kinship. The family of origin, the consanguineal family, the family you were born into, lost ground to the family that was created by marriage, the conjugal family. The ties among blood kin began to weaken and the bonds created by marriage grew stronger. More people married than ever before and fewer stayed single, because the family that increasingly mattered was the new family constructed by marriage rather than the family of parents and siblings that one grew up in (Perry 1-5, 14-15, 29-34, passim).1
This happened gradually throughout the eighteenth century, for a number of social and economic reasons: greater geographical mobility meant that adult children no longer lived their lives out in the vicinity of their parents. The growth of cities and the new possibilities for ways of earning a living drew young people from the agricultural countryside into urban and proto-industrial centers. Class mobility meant that children no longer shared the economic circumstances of their parents—no longer were dependent on them for land and tools—nor for permission or guidance in their marriage choices (Perry 24-29). And as English society became increasingly enmeshed in a cash-and-credit based capitalist economy, marriage itself became one of the most significant means of moving capital around, of transferring it from one family to another, and of consolidating larger estates and fortunes (Perry 209-17).
Although marriage settlements had functioned from the sixteenth through the early eighteenth century to protect women’s financial interest in marriage, by the early eighteenth century marriage settlements were being turned to a different use—to concentrate and entail property in the male line. The strict settlement, a legal device invented in the late seventeenth century and added to marriage contracts, designated provisions for the as yet unborn children of the coming union, insuring that the property jointly owned by the new couple would be entailed on male offspring born to them. It limited what, out of the estate, would be left to daughters and younger sons, focusing future inheritance on accumulation rather than distribution of a family’s wealth (Perry 49).
These processes are complex and they are not my subject here, although I wanted to gesture towards the reasons for this dramatic shift in the meaning of kinship and family. Suffice it to say that marriage gained both economic and social significance in England in the course of the eighteenth century. Men and women began to marry two years younger on average than they had in earlier times—women at twenty-three and men at twenty-five—and fewer people remained unmarried than ever before. And the birthrate climbed. After a century of population stability during which the population hovered around the five-million mark, it nearly doubled in the course of the century. By the early nineteenth century, when Jane Austen began publishing her books, the population of England was nearly nine million.
So what has this to do with brothers and sisters? Simply this: that as the consanguineal family—the family you were born into, your blood kin—lost significance and the conjugal and affinal family—that is, the new configuration of family you created by marrying—gained significance, women became less important as daughters and as sisters and became more important, socially and culturally speaking, as mothers and wives. Their claims on the resources of their families as wives and as mothers gained legal and social credibility while their claims as daughters and as sisters were diminished accordingly.
This re-assigning of the priorities of women’s familial roles is visible in a great deal of eighteenth-century fiction in contests between sisters and wives for the resources and affection of the man who was the brother to one and the husband to the other. Jane Austen, who keenly felt her place in her family both as a sister and a daughter, and who never married and hence was never called upon to reassign these loyalties to a new conjugal family—nor to compete with a husband’s sisters for his love and support—dramatized this conflict acutely in that remarkable second chapter of Sense and Sensibility in which Mr. John Dashwood is convinced by his selfish wife to disregard the deathbed vow that he made to his father to protect and support his stepmother and sisters. Austen is always aware of what a man owes his sisters—his consanguineal family—and this scene is a good example of this concern.
The sequence begins with the land itself, the estate of Norland, inhabited at the outset by a single man and his constant companion and housekeeper, his sister. When this sister dies in the opening chapter, the old gentleman invites his nephew—presumably a sibling’s child—Mr. Henry Dashwood, together with his wife and daughters, to live with him. The estate is to pass to Henry Dashwood after the old gentleman dies, and then to Henry Dashwood’s son by a previous marriage, John Dashwood, although it was Henry Dashwood’s second wife—our Mrs. Dashwood—and their three daughters who enlivened the old gentleman’s last decade. Henry Dashwood dies a year after his uncle, although not before urging his son John to look after the interests of his stepmother and sisters. Norland is duly inherited by his son John, bypassing the female protagonists—Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret—who will inherit no land.
Thus Austen sets up an opposition between John Dashwood’s obligation to his conjugal family, his wife and child, and his duty to his consanguineal family, his blood kin—already somewhat attenuated by their being only a stepmother and half sisters. Norland, once the site of a family constructed by siblinghood—where the old gentleman lived with his sister—has become the private domain of a nuclear family, and John Dashwood’s wife makes his stepmother and sisters feel unwelcome in what had been their home. They are “degraded” to the condition of visitors; their claims as consanguineal kin are very much secondary to hers as a conjugal spouse.
Next we watch her whittle away her husband’s intended largesse to his blood kin of £1,000 apiece to £500 apiece to an annuity of £100 per annum for his stepmother to an occasional gift of £50 to presents of game or fish in season. Their dialogue is punctuated by venal remarks on Mrs. Dashwood’s good health and probable longevity and reflections on their toddler son’s adult requirements and necessities in excess of the income of more than £4,000 a year that he already stands to inherit (9-12).
Austen plays this scene for laughs, but when one considers that the reduced income of the Dashwood women was probably about what she and Cassandra and their mother had to live on after George Austen died, and that this income was partly constituted by the contributions of Austen’s brothers and Cassandra’s annuity, the calculations of this comic scene take on more of an edge (Le Faye 146-147). John Dashwood’s selfishness in the face of his sisters’ need becomes less theoretical.
When Emma Watson—in Jane Austen’s fragment, The Watsons—returns home to her father and sisters in Surry after living with her wealthy aunt and uncle in Shropshire, becoming again a dependent daughter instead of a potential heiress, a contender in the marriage market—her reduced status is apparent to everyone. Her brother greets her casually after many years’ absence, thus underscoring her present insignificance: “Robert was carelessly kind, as became a prosperous Man & a brother; more intent on settling with the Post-Boy, inveighing against the Exorbitant advance in Posting, & pondering over a doubtful halfcrown, than on welcoming a Sister, who was no longer likely to have any property for him to get the direction of” (349). Without the expectation of a fortune from her aunt and uncle, her importance in her family of origin is minimal; she has nothing to interest her brother Robert and is only another mouth to feed, another sister to marry off. Like Charlotte Lucas before Mr. Collins’s saving proposal, an unmarried sister was a burden to her brothers.
Up until the eighteenth-century, brothers were expected to protect their sisters—because they were the representatives of patriarchal power under the older, feudal system, and then later, because they were participants in the newer capitalist system. Changes in English class structure and the nature of inheritance enhanced the privilege of male children. As men, they could hope for advancement or class mobility; they could have careers and handle money; they could go into trade or travel to the East or West Indies, train for the clergy, or join the navy. Men engaged in the business of the world; women did not. In Persuasion, Mrs. Smith is unable to claim her West Indian property until she gets help from Captain Wentworth, who “writ[es] for her, act[s] for her, and see[s] her through all the petty difficulties of the case” (251). Jane Austen’s brothers managed negotiations with publishers for her, although not always as deftly as she might have done herself. Robert Watson would have managed his sisters’ property had there been any to manage, and his lukewarm welcome can be traced to this unfortunate lack.
Sisters depended on their brothers for financial support and occasionally for an establishment. They relied on their brothers for legal advice and public negotiation, for mobility and escorted travel, for social and sexual protection. Whenever Jane Austen wants to travel somewhere, as you can see from her letters—to London or to Kent—she has to wait for one of her brothers to take her. Men moved more easily in the world; they could carry weapons for self-defense, and their economic resources were usually greater than sisters of whatever age. Especially if there was no father, brothers were supposed to protect and look after their sisters’ interests; it was a vestigial obligation from an earlier time increasingly honored in the breach rather than in the observance.
The problem was that despite their social and economic dependence, sisters had no legal leverage to compel this protection and these services from their brothers because theirs was, after all, a sibling relation and not a child-parent relation. Brothers had very little motivation other than conventional humanitarian reasons, or old-fashioned sentiments about family honor, to arrange for their sisters’ comfort—when their money might instead be spent on their own business or pleasure. Moreover, as I have said, once a man married, he increasingly felt that he owed his duty to his conjugal family—his wife and children—in preference to his consanguineal family of origin—his parents and his siblings. Despite the convention that brothers, in the absence of fathers, were responsible for their sisters, there was very little economic incentive for them to take this responsibility seriously. Many brothers must have viewed their sisters as responsibilities they never chose, rivals for family resources, and a debt to the future, occasion for both resentment and guilt.
It was therefore unfortunate that, after her father, there was no one on whom an unmarried woman depended more for her welfare and reputation than her brother. He stood in the place of a parent, but with none of the incentives of a parent for pride or generosity. In families with property, the need to provide daughters with dowries created further tension between brothers and sisters because it was from his inheritance that her portion was to be subtracted. Good brothers in fiction paid this debt willingly and even augmented it; bad brothers tried to evade it.
In the context of this somewhat outmoded moral code with regard to dependent sisters, the extent to which brothers voluntarily undertook to protect and to care for their sisters became a measure of their moral fiber. Emma Watson’s brother, Robert, “carelessly kind, as became a prosperous Man & a brother,” is morally suspect from the start, a judgment in which the reader is confirmed by his subsequent behavior. Although Austen suggests that his lack of consideration is common enough in this scene in which he pays more attention to “a doubtful half crown” than to a sister he has not seen for years, it exposes his selfish heart just as convincingly as the sequence revealing John Dashwood’s heartlessness in the scene with his venal wife. The degree to which a brother exhibited his care and concern for his sister is a moral litmus test in eighteenth-century fiction, a convention for reading a man’s real character. Although not required by law, brotherly love had the weight of custom as well as necessity behind it. A family obligation from an earlier era, it came to be idealized in fiction as it was eroded in life by competing demands of conjugal families and the cash requirements of the new economy.
In Pride and Prejudice, when Mrs. Reynolds, the housekeeper, shows Elizabeth Bennet and the Gardiners around the rooms at Pemberley and praises Darcy’s treatment of his sister, it is a very telling tribute given the novel conventions of the period. “‘Whatever can give his sister any pleasure, is sure to be done in a moment,’” she tells them. “‘There is nothing he would not do for her’” (250). This endorsement is even more powerful than her assurance that she has never had a cross word from him or that he is very kind to his tenants, for it reveals the strength of his affection as well as his sense of duty.
It is noteworthy that the first thing the exemplary Sir Charles Grandison does upon returning home after his father’s death, in Richardson’s novel, is to restore his sisters’ rightful portions. As Sir Charles’ mother explains to them on her deathbed, a lesson that many wise older women articulate in eighteenth-century fiction,
I am afraid there will be but a slender provision made for my dear girls. Your papa has the notion riveted in him which is common to men of antient families, that daughters are but incumbrances, and that the son is to be everything. . . . Your brother loves you: He loves me. It will be in his power, should he survive your father, to be a good friend to you.—Love your brother. (315)
Richardson was, of course, one of Austen’s favorite writers. When Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey assumes that Catherine Morland’s mother disapproves of novels, Catherine replies, “‘No, she does not. She very often reads Sir Charles Grandison herself’” (41). But it is hardly in Richardson’s novel alone that one finds such examples. Most of the significant novels before Austen—whether by Eliza Haywood, Mary Collyer, Sarah Fielding, Samuel Richardson, Tobias Smollett, Elizabeth Hamilton, or Sarah Scott—reveal the moral qualities of their male protagonists by how they treat their sisters. “Cherchez la soeur” ought to be a critic’s first rule in judging a man in eighteenth-century novel. When Grandison, the perfect hero, acts immediately upon his father’s death to give his sisters what is due them by custom, it is not simply the impulse to protect innocent sufferers that motivates him, but a clear instinct for justice: he is not acting out of charity but out of rectitude. He acts quickly and decisively to make them comfortable and independent, giving them each £10,000 irrevocably free and clear. One assumes from the complex and detailed circumstances—narrated with care and at great length—that eighteenth-century readers found much of interest in this example of how Grandison legally provided for his unmarried sisters. Similarly, in Charlotte Smith’s The Old Manor House, the idealized Orlando gives each of his sisters £5,000 as soon as he comes into his long-delayed estate (521).
When Mr. Knightley expostulates on Mr. Martin’s fine qualities to Emma, before he hears her prejudice against him as a match for her new friend Harriet Smith, he says “‘He is an excellent young man, both as a son and a brother’” (59). In other words, Mr. Martin conforms to the highest expectations for young men in the modern world. And Charles Musgrove, in Persuasion, during the autumnal walk to Winthrop, where his cousin Charles Hayter lives, agrees with his sisters’ decision to visit these déclassé cousins—as Henrietta clearly wishes to do—rather than to turn back and omit the visit as his snobbish wife enjoins him to do. It is a minor incident, but a contemporary novel reader would understand implicitly that his heart is in the right place for supporting his sister rather than his wife. And later, when Louisa falls on the Cobb at Lyme, he hangs over her “with sobs of grief” for, as Austen tells us, he was “really a very affectionate brother” (110).
Northanger Abbey, with its array of brothers, perhaps displays most systematically Austen’s treatment of brotherly love as an important moral diagnostic. Henry Tilney, about whom we know precious little at first except that he is a tease, qualifies as the hero in the course of the novel by showing that he is an affectionate brother. In the very first scene, he boasts his expertise in muslin by telling Mrs. Allen that his sister “‘has often trusted me in the choice of a gown’” and proceeds to quote a price of five shillings a yard for a “‘true Indian muslin’” to prove it. Mrs. Allen, who cares about little else, is “struck by his genius” (28). Now whether or not he is telling the truth about buying muslin at this price, the fact that he knows what a good price is and seems comfortable with the details of women’s dress would seem to indicate that he is in his sister’s confidence.
Indeed, all the brothers in Northanger Abbey display their truest selves in relation to their sisters, as one might have expected in a novel self-conscious about the conventions and clichés of fiction. John Thorpe’s swaggering selfishness is apparent from his first insolent greeting of his mother and sisters. After boasting about his horses and his gig, the only subjects on which he has anything to say, and offering to drive Catherine around, he assures Isabella that “‘I did not come to Bath to drive my sisters about’” (48). After that, and his “short decisive sentence[s] of praise or condemnation on the face of every woman they met,” he further distinguishes his character by assuring Catherine that he never reads novels, which are “‘the stupidest thing in creation’” (48). His address to his mother and sisters is equally engaging: “‘Ah mother! How do you do. . . . [W]here did you get that quiz of a hat, it makes you look like an old witch,’” he says to his mother, and then he “bestow[s] an equal portion of his fraternal tenderness” on his two younger sisters by observing how ugly they looked (49). He repeats at least one of these endearing sentiments a week later, word for word, when Isabella tries to convince Catherine to go with them to Clifton. She refuses to go, being pre-engaged to the Tilneys, and suggests that they take one of the younger Thorpe sisters in her stead, to which John replies graciously, “‘Thank ye, . . . but I did not come to Bath to drive my sisters about, and look like a fool” (99). He does, in the end, resign himself to taking Maria, whom he says he chose because Anne “‘had such thick ankces’” (117)—an explanation not calculated to improve family relations and sisterly affection. John neither protects, supports, instructs, advises, nor in any way empathizes with his sisters; his boorishness towards them is of a piece with the rest of his behavior.
Henry Tilney, by comparison a loving and companionable brother, talks things over with his sister Eleanor, reads novels with her, educates her, and tries to keep her company as much as his duties at Woodston allow. “‘I am always sorry to leave Eleanor,’” he tells Catherine, aware of how lonely life must be for her, immured at Northanger Abbey (157). Their older brother, Captain Frederick Tilney, on the other hand, chafes under familial obligation much as he resists any responsibility in his flirtation with Isabella Thorpe. “‘How glad I shall be when you are all off’” (155), he whispers to Eleanor as they prepare to leave Bath and return to Northanger. The contrast tells the reader at once which is the good brother and which the bad brother, even without Austen’s hints about Captain Tilney’s gothic potential.
Eleanor Tilney trusts her brother Henry and confides in him. During the éclaircissement at the theater, the evening after Catherine has been denied at Milson St. but has then seen that Eleanor was at home, Henry tells her that Eleanor “‘has been wishing ever since to see you, to explain the reason of such incivility’” (94). Eleanor apparently has told him the whole story, and it is clear that they are in each other’s confidence. Later, at Northanger Abbey, when Catherine receives her brother James’s unhappy letter about breaking it off with Isabella and shows her distress while reading the letter, Henry and Eleanor discuss her reaction together before they talk to her about it. And there is that delightful exchange between them, in which they perfectly understand each other’s double meaning, although Catherine is still in the dark. “‘Prepare for your sister-in-law, Eleanor. . . . Open, candid, artless, guileless, with affections strong but simple, forming no pretensions, and knowing no disguise,’” says Henry, mocking Isabella’s artifice and covertly praising Catherine. “‘Such a sister-in-law, Henry, I should delight in,’” replies Eleanor with a smile, responding to both levels of his remark (206).
When Henry teases Catherine about her careless and inexact use of the words “amazing” and “nice,” correcting her use of language, Eleanor tells her that “‘he is treating you exactly as he does his sister’” (107), suggesting how Henry has shaped her own education. Eleanor assures Catherine that, despite his criticism, “‘he must be entirely misunderstood, if he can ever appear to say an unjust thing of any woman at all, or an unkind one of me’” (114), a powerful testimonial of his regard for women in general and for his love of her in particular. Siblings know one another more intimately and honestly than anyone else; a sister’s confidence in her brother’s goodness carries corresponding weight—at least in eighteenth-century fiction.
Catherine Morland’s brother James is neither as discerning as Henry Tilney nor as thoughtful a brother. But he nonetheless loves his sister sincerely. When she thanks him for coming to Bath to visit her, he “qualifie[s] his conscience” for accepting her gratitude by saying, “‘Indeed, Catherine, I love you dearly’” (51). When Isabella flirts destructively with Frederick Tilney and breaks off her engagement with James, he turns piteously to Catherine, telling her that “‘you are my only friend; your love I do build upon’” (202). Then he suggests, displaying the family naiveté, that Catherine may want to leave Northanger Abbey before Frederick Tilney arrives to announce his engagement with Isabella, so sure is he that Isabella has captivated the richer man. He writes to her as a friend, an ally, as one who would naturally share his feelings. As with the sympathy that Austen creates between Henry and Eleanor in this novel, Austen’s construction of brother-sister relations, when they are good, is rather like the relation between sisters. They talk with one another, they read the same books, they walk out together, and they confide in one another. The comfort and genuine love of this relation displays the moral potential of brothers for being good husbands, and it adds an important dimension to their qualification as heroes in Austen’s novels.
Historically, sibling loyalty played a more important role in people’s lives than it does today, although by the eighteenth century that relationship was already somewhat diluted. Still, in eighteenth-century fiction, only a brother could compete for the love of a woman with her husband; only a brother could arouse as powerful feelings as the hero in the sensible heart of a heroine. Charlotte Lennox’s The Life of Harriot Stuart (1751) uses a lover’s vocabulary to express the “ardent affection” of the heroine for her brother, who “instilled an early love for virtue into my soul.” When he leaves to make his fortune she hangs “upon his arms in a speechless agony of grief” (1: 9-10), and when they are reunited, her “transports” are “unbounded” (1: 57). Social historians and literary critics often pass over sibling relationships as irrelevant to the “real story”—which they assume to be the development of the conjugal family and an emphasis on romantic love between husbands and wives. They overlook the extent to which a brother’s protection of his sister was retained as a moral idea. But the idealized “good” brother (as well as his opposite) figures prominently in scores of eighteenth-century novels in the second half of the century.
Mansfield Park is probably the novel of Austen’s that most privileges and foregrounds the brother-sister tie. To begin with, Edmund becomes a kind of brother to Fanny Price when she first arrives. He notices her reticent grief, learns its source—she is missing her brothers and sisters, “among whom she had always been important as play-fellow, instructress, and nurse” (14)—and helps her write and post a letter to her much loved brother, William. William is the eldest brother in that overpopulated Price family, a year older than Fanny, “her constant companion and friend,” and “her advocate with [their] mother (of whom he was the darling)” (15). We know instantly from this detail—of how he uses his male privilege to the advantage of his sister—that William is a good man. When he visits her at Mansfield Park, Fanny Price enjoys her greatest happiness in “unchecked, equal, fearless intercourse” (234) with him; and indeed it is her virginal but unbounded enthusiasm in his company that interests Henry Crawford and awakens his desire to woo her. Their shared memories, claims Austen, were “a strengthener of love, in which even the conjugal tie is beneath the fraternal” (emphasis added). She continues,
Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connections can supply; and it must be by a long and unnatural estrangement, by a divorce which no subsequent connection can justify, if such precious remains of the earliest attachments are ever entirely outlived. (234-35)
Thus a woman’s love for her brother, for his reciprocating affection and care, can be as strong as any other kind of love, insists Austen; stronger even than conjugal love.
Many readers, of course, feel that Edmund Bertram combines the fraternal and the conjugal, and that makes him the object of Fanny’s love precisely because he has cared for her like a brother. From the moment that he finds her crying on the stairs and learns that she misses her older brother, he acts in loco fratris. He sharpens her pens and rules “her lines with all the good will that her brother could himself have felt, and probably with somewhat more exactness” (16), writes Austen. He also gives her advice for playing with Maria and Julia, to whom he has been a brother a lot longer, but a less active one it seems. During the outing to Sotherton, for example, although Fanny sees Maria’s flirtation with Henry Crawford, Edmund seems oblivious of it. And while he recognizes that Mr. Rushworth is a very stupid fellow, he never tries to counsel his sister Maria—as their father does—against marrying where wealth seems to be the primary object. When the plan to put on Lovers’ Vows is broken to him, he does try to protect Maria from the indelicacy of acting in it, and he tells her that she must give it up to set the example to the others. But of course, she does not heed him. Both Maria and Julia could have benefited from a closer relation to their brother Edmund, and Austen does not explain why he never takes responsibility for them as he does for Fanny Price. Perhaps Edmund is not a particularly attentive brother to his sisters because there are two of them—and they have each other—whereas Austen’s other good brothers such as Darcy or Henry Tilney have only one sister each to cherish and support.
Tom Bertram, Edmund’s older brother, raised—as eldest sons usually are—to be expensive and to enjoy himself, and like Frederick Tilney in Northanger Abbey, lacking responsible feelings towards anything or anybody, is even less concerned with his sisters’ well-being or with Fanny’s happiness. His treatment of these women for whom he should be a champion and a guide shows how selfish and shallow he is. It is he who insists upon acting the play despite his sister Maria’s semi-engaged situation; and as for Fanny, when she is new and awkward at Mansfield Park he makes her some very pretty presents and laughs at her; and when she is being celebrated on the occasion of her first ball he tries to evade dancing with her and then only stands up with her to foil his aunt Norris’s request that he play cards with the Grants.
Henry Crawford is more ambiguous in his role as a brother. He is fond of his sister Mary, and she of him, but he will not provide her with an establishment when their uncle, Admiral Crawford, brings in his mistress after his wife dies, making it impossible for Mary to stay on there. She could never persuade Henry to settle with her at his country house although their uncle’s conduct has taken away her only home. Austen tells us that although Henry “could not accommodate his sister in an article of such importance,” he had willingly escorted her into Northamptonshire on this occasion and was ready “to fetch her away again at half an hour’s notice, whenever she were weary of the place” (41). They are friends and understand one another, the Crawfords; but he will not incommode himself for her. We learn that when they are apart he never really makes the effort to write to her.
“Henry, . . . who loves me, consults me, confides in me, and will talk to me by the hour together, has never yet turned the page in a letter; and very often it is nothing more than, ‘Dear Mary, I am just arrived. Bath seems full, and every thing as usual. Your’s sincerely.’” (59).
Fanny protests that her brother writes long letters, but even without that comparison, the reader knows that Henry’s laconic epistolary style is another sign of his selfishness. He does whatever pleases him but will not take any trouble to comfort or support his sister when his pleasure is not involved. It does not bode well for the future, and the reader who imagines that Henry Crawford is capable of amendment need only recall that he never acts with disinterested generosity towards his own sister and was unlikely to put any woman’s interests first.
One might be inclined to read some of Austen’s representations of brothers as biographically motivated if it were not for the many other novels in which a brother’s treatment of his sister reveals deeper attitudes towards women, compassion for dependents—or lack thereof—or a man’s true priorities with regard to wealth and family obligations. As I’ve indicated, the Chawton household depended on the contributions of Austen’s brothers for their sustenance. The house itself was granted by Edward Knight, soon after his wife died, raising the possibility that the offer to live at Chawton cottage might have been withheld until then by his wife, the sign of another contest between sisters and a wife. Moreover, Jane Austen was very close to her brothers—especially Henry and Frank. And she was very fond of Edward’s children. These relations remained strong and important in her life—perhaps because she never married. But the biographical merely reinforces the historical, for there are dozens of novels in which a man’s treatment of his sister tells you everything you need to know about his character and I have mentioned a few of them here.
Despite this analysis of the underlying patterns in the depiction of brothers in Austen’s fiction, it hardly needs saying that she nevertheless always makes her characters feel like particular individuals rather than mere types. Although I have focused on the socio-legal aspect of brother-sister relations and the cultural ambivalence towards the obligations that followed upon these, we can see in her novels, as in life, the vivid particularity of the way these relations played out, the utterly credible humanity with which she was able to invest even the least of her imagined people—which is where the most enduring part of her appeal as a novelist has always lain.
Brothers and sisters did not have the same power in the world, although they were equivalent in everything else that mattered socially: class, birth, mental capability, and genetic endowment. They were one another’s earliest friends and most important allies within a family; and it was expected or hoped that brothers would use their added power to protect and support their sisters—especially if their fathers could not be counted on to do so. But increasingly in the eighteenth century as consanguineal ties weakened, and as the individual’s responsibility towards his family of origin was attenuated by distance, wealth, custom, and other emotional ties, it was understood that brothers’ concerns were not always consonant with their sisters’, and that they could not be expected to act for their sisters’ advantage when their own interests were involved. Then they acted like men of the world, sacrificing their sisters for their own advantage. Thus, the relation of brothers to their sisters became, in the fiction of the eighteenth century, another measure of the toll that individualism paid to modernity, another test of love’s weight in the scale of self-interest, another casualty of capitalism.
1. The arguments and examples in this article—and even some of the sentences—come from chapter 4 of my Novel Relations. But I have elaborated the argument here and added some new examples to the material of that earlier treatment.
Austen, Jane. The Works of Jane Austen. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.
Le Faye, Deirdre. Jane Austen: A Family Record. 2nd ed. Cambridge: CUP, 2004.
Lennox, Charlotte. The Life of Harriot Stuart. 2 vols. London: Payne and Bosquet, 1751.
Perry, Ruth. Novel Relations: The Transformation of Kinship in English Literature and Culture 1748-1818. Cambridge: CUP, 2004.
Richardson, Samuel. The History of Sir Charles Grandison. Ed. Jocelyn Harris. Oxford: OUP, 1986.
Smith, Charlotte. The Old Manor House. Ed. Jacqueline M. Labbe. Peterborough: Broadview, 2002.